A new model of social organization is taking shape in the Kurdish areas of northern Syria. Rojava, as it is known, comprises three cantons in the western section of the historical homeland of the Kurdish people, which is now divided up among Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. In terms of social equality, ethnic pluralism, and antisectarianism, the territory is a regional standout. That is especially the case when it comes to women’s advancement.
Western public attention began to turn to Rojava in 2014 and 2015, when the territory’s militias, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), played a central role in ousting the Islamic State, or ISIS, from Kobani, a city in northern Syria. Observers latched on to two features of the group: first, its success against ISIS, which U.S.-backed Iraqi security and Syrian opposition forces had struggled to defeat, and second, the prominence of female fighters in its ranks.
Since World War II, female guerrillas have taken part in armed struggles around the world. Yet most militant groups have enlisted females because they needed more soldiers, not because they wanted to empower women, and few have prioritized women’s equality as much as the Turkish and Syrian Kurds.
Rojava’s emphasis on the leading role of women, however, is not confined to the military. It defines the Syrian Kurds’ broader societal vision. Forty percent of the members of any civil society or governing body in Rojava must be female. Similarly, all administrative organs, economic projects, and civil society organizations are required to have male and female co-chairs. Although the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is dominant in Rojava and Kurds form the majority of its population, Rojava is home to a number of other political parties and ethnicities. It is the only society in its region that draws on the strengths of its entire population. How have women managed to gain so much power in the middle of a war for survival?